**CONTENT WARNING: This blog contains graphic details about death and dying.
It has been almost 21 years since I received life altering news that impacted me on such an incredibly deep level that it left me feeling lost for years, and led me down a path of self destruction. It's fascinating how one event can change the trajectory of a person’s path. Every single one of us experiences trauma throughout our lifetime. It’s like a requirement as part of the contract we sign up for to live in human form. The list of experiences that can cause trauma is never ending, to include bullying, domestic abuse, sexual assault, war, poverty, having your home burglarized, growing up with physically absentee or emotionally unavailable parents, living through a pandemic, and yes - even a presidential election process. The trauma I experienced 21 years ago started the moment I received word that my brother had died.
It was a Friday afternoon on April 14, 2000, and I was sitting in the living room waiting for my siblings to come home so they could take me to the airport. I was a junior in high school, and spring break had just started. My plan was to spend the week in northern California where my parents live. The phone rang and it was my brother-in-law’s mom. She started talking really fast and in a different Vietnamese dialect than I am used to, so I didn't fully understand what she was saying. I initially thought someone on her side of the family had died. After having to repeat herself several times, the realization of what she was telling me hit like a ton of bricks – one of my brothers was dead. Time froze as panic bubbled inside me. My thoughts started to race a mile a minute as I immediately hung up and called my parents. While the phone rang, an unexplainable feeling overcame me and I just knew which brother it was. When my mom picked up, I asked her who died. The deep anguish in her voice as she said “Nho” is something I will never forget...no matter how hard I try. I hear it so clearly now all these years later. My brother, Danny (aka “Nho” - his family nickname) died in a car accident. He was 22 years old.
You know how movies portray flashes of memories from a character’s life right as the character is about to die? Well, those flashes really do happen. At least for me it did, even though I wasn't the one dying. All I could do was scream as memories of my childhood with my brother flashed before me in waves. The pain I felt was sharp, overwhelming and penetrated every fiber of my body. I remember staring out the window at the bushes as I screamed, and not being able to look away. I felt paralyzed and afraid to look at anything else, as if doing so would make the ghost of my brother appear. I didn't want it to be true. It's interesting what the human mind remembers when trauma is experienced. I don't know how long I was screaming for, but I do vaguely remember hearing my mom say she couldn’t listen anymore before she hung up.
I flew to northern California later that day as planned. The hours and days that followed are a blur of slow-motion interactions that are now fragmented memories. I don’t remember who picked me up from the airport or what happened that evening. I think it was the next morning when I woke up and went to the living room to find my parents hysterically crying. My mom was on one side of the living room sobbing on the floor in front of a picture of Danny. I can still hear her cries, desperately willing my brother to show up as if everything that happened the previous 24 hours was just an awful nightmare. My dad was on the other side of the living room curled up on the couch with tears streaming down his face. He was trying to talk, but it was hard for him to breathe. Instead of words, all I heard were soft whimpers. I went back and forth between my parents, trying to comfort them as I cried myself. I felt the weight of their pain and I wanted so badly to make it stop. I was so scared. What I was scared of, I’m not sure. I just remember the overwhelming feeling of it.
In the evening, I went to the crash site with my oldest brother, Chris. There were a lot of people there. I remember seeing the blood stained cement, and crying as one of the girls held me. Later that night, a childhood friend called the house and asked to speak to Danny. When I told him what happened, he said to stop “playing around”. I had to repeat myself several times before he believed me. I remember feeling his shift in energy the moment he realized it wasn't just a joke. My sisters also called to get an update. They were in southern California preparing to drive up. I was incredibly overwhelmed with my own grief, trying to comfort my parents, taking the never-ending phone calls and answering the never ending questions, that by the time my sisters called I had no energy left. I was exhausted and operating on empty. Having to relive the day again by giving them an update would have shattered my fragile state of mind. I wanted to stop feeling and thinking. When I told my sisters that I didn't want to talk, they got upset. I lashed out at them for not understanding how awful it was dealing with the chaos and feeling alone. And I remember feeling bad about it afterwards. They just wanted to know what was going on...they were hurting too.
The next day, I went to the mortuary with my mom and Chris to discuss funeral arrangements. It felt weird walking around the showroom looking at the selection of coffins. It never crossed my mind that I would ever have to “shop” for one. Chris ended up choosing a beautiful metallic blue coffin– one of Danny’s favorite colors. When it came time to view Danny’s body, Chris went on his own. When the viewing was done, we all sat around a brown table to finalize the details of the funeral. It was at this point that we were handed the autopsy report. I don't remember the exact language, but I do remember the heavy feeling in my stomach as I imagined my brother’s broken body. I thought how painful and scary it must have been for Chris to actually see it. The casket was going to be open during the funeral, so the coroner asked for a photo of Danny because he needed to reconstruct his face. Danny’s skull and jaw (in addition to his chest) were shattered from the accident and his face was unrecognizable. I remember hearing this so clearly, and the intense wave of pain that followed.
Danny’s funeral lasted three days. While I don’t remember much, the things that I do remember are forever imprinted in my memory:
~ seeing my brother in a coffin, his face swollen and discolored. His hands looked like they were made of playdough. His hair was the only part of him that looked “normal” to me. He was known for his hair when he was alive - it was thick, healthy and always styled. Even in death his hair was Pantene Pro-V approved (he’s with me now as I’m writing this and is running his hands through his hair like he’s Fabio. I haven’t rolled my eyes this hard in a while);
~ the smell of formaldehyde (three days of inhaling this is enough to last me a lifetime);
~ seeing Chris try so hard to not break down in front of Danny’s coffin and losing that battle;
~ my oldest sister looking at the floor instead of Danny when she walked by his coffin;
~ the side glance my dad gave me as I sat on one of the benches, completely distraught;
~ bagels...a kind soul brought my family bagels; and
~ my dad standing at the front of the funeral home preparing to deliver the eulogy. His voice shook as he tried to speak. He was only able to say “I don’t know what to say” before he collapsed to the floor in tears. I remember going to him and holding him as we both cried...as my whole family cried.
A couple of days after the funeral ended, my parents and Chris flew Danny’s body to Vietnam and buried him there.
The weeks, months and years that followed Danny’s funeral was far more difficult to face than the actual funeral itself. When the shock wears off and the constant flow of visitors stop, the magnitude of what happened starts to settle in. While my family experienced Danny’s loss together, we grieved on our own. I’m confident in saying no one in my family felt comfortable talking about how we were coping. I certainly wasn’t. For years I kept how I was feeling to myself. The only time I was able to express a bit of what I was going through was during my last year of high school. I had to submit a senior project and decided to make a scrapbook dedicated to Danny (photo below). It included family photos, a copy of the article from the newspaper that covered his accident, photos of his car before and after the crash, lyrics to songs, poems I wrote, quotes, sketches and a letter I wrote to him letting him know how I felt. The last page of my scrapbook covered my reflections of where I was at in my journey of grief and loss. Here’s an excerpt from it:
"It’s been over a year since his death and I am still utterly consumed with grief. How is a person to feel when their loved one unexpectedly dies? Scared? Mad? Lonely? There is no one emotion a person is supposed to feel, and no specific process of mourning one goes through. Every individual has their own way of handling their grief and when or if there is acceptance, it comes at different times for everyone. Unfortunately for myself, that time has not yet come.
I still feel tremendous guilt for all the bad times my brother and I shared together. And then I think of the good times we had and I get extremely melancholy because I know I’ll never again be able to create any more memories with him.
Will I ever see him again? Does he know what’s in my heart? Can he hear me talk to him at night? Is he an angel watching over my family and I? Will I one day finally be at peace with myself? I can only hope."
Going through my scrapbook as an adult now, I realize even at a young age I understood that the grieving process looked and felt different for everyone. I tried to not place expectations on myself, but for a very long time I did wonder if I would ever be “ok”.
What do you remember most when you found out your loved one(s) passed away?
Danny’s death affected me in so many ways. The scrapbook barely touched the surface of what I was feeling. The darkest parts of my pain was buried deep within my heart. My method of coping was by numbing myself. How I numbed my pain evolved over the years, and became increasingly self destructive...
Love & Light,